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This was exactly the kind of homecoming that Deputy Josh Ryland had wanted to avoid.
Just the sight of the guy with the gun caused his head to start pounding, and his heartbeat crashed in his ears. The flashbacks came.
Man, did they.
Flashbacks of another surveillance, another gunman. And the three .38 jacketed slugs that the gunman had fired into Josh's chest. The wounds had healed, for the most part anyway, but still the flashbacks came.
"You okay?" his cousin whispered.
His cousin was Grayson Ryland, sheriff of Silver Creek, Josh's hometown where he'd been born and had spent his childhood. Not a town where Josh had expected to see a man carrying an assault rifle. It wasn't exactly a standard weapon for a Texas cattle rancher.
"I'm fine," Josh lied. And he tried to level his breathing. Tried also to ignore the healing gunshot wounds on his chest that had started to throb like a bad toothache.
"I can call one of the other deputies to come out here," Grayson offered.
There was no shortage of them. Like Grayson, four of the deputies were Josh's cousins, too. And if Grayson had thought for one second that he would encounter a rifletoting man on what should have been a routine call, then he would have almost certainly brought one of the others and not Josh.
"You made me a deputy," Josh reminded him. "This is part of the job."
That sounded good. Like something a small-town deputy should say to his boss.
It was pretty much a lie, though.
The truth was, Josh had come back home after taking a leave of absence from the FBI so he could avoid gunmen. Assault rifles. Bullets to the chest. And the tangle of bloody memories that he fought hard to keep out of his head.
So much for that plan.
Using the binoculars, Josh watched the rifleman pace across the front porch of the two-story ranch house. He was clearly standing guard.
Too bad Josh could think of several reasons why a rancher would need a guard with an assault rifle, and none of those reasons involved anything legal.
Josh handed Grayson the binoculars so he, too, could have a look. "You think they're hiding drugs in the house?" Grayson asked.
"Drugs or guns, maybe."
Whichever it was, it had created a lot of traffic, because there were plenty of tire tracks on the gravel driveway in front of the ranch house.
It was that unusual traffic that had prompted someone to make an anonymous call to the sheriff's office to report possible suspicious activity at the ranch. It didn't help that no one knew the tenants. The place had recently been rented by a couple from nearby San Antonio who'd yet to turn up in town.
Josh could see the source of some of that traffic. There were four vehicles-two trucks, an SUV and a car, all parked around the grounds. No tractors, no livestock or any signs of any ranching equipment.
That didn't help the knot in Josh's stomach.
"The gunman's not the new tenant of the place," Grayson explained.
No. Josh had glanced at the couple's driver's license photos in the background info that he'd pulled up on them before Grayson and he had even started the half-hour drive from Silver Creek out to the Bluebonnet Ranch. A peaceful-sounding name for a place that was probably hiding some very unpeaceful secrets.
And speaking of hiding, the front door of the ranch house flew open, and Josh didn't need the binoculars to see another armed man step into the doorway.
Yeah, this was definitely a bad homecoming.
Grayson and he stayed belly down on the side of the hill dotted with spring wildflowers that overlooked the ranch, and Grayson returned the binoculars to Josh so he could take out his phone and call for backup. Unfortunately, they were going to need it.
Josh zoomed in on the second guard who'd stepped onto the porch. Both men were dressed in dark clothes, and both carried the same type of assault rifle. Maybe they were part of a militia group, though Josh hadn't heard of any reports of that kind of activity in Silver Creek.
The second man glanced around. The kind of glance that a cop or criminal would make to ensure he wasn't being watched. Josh was pretty certain that Grayson and he were well hidden, but he ducked down lower just in case, and he watched the man motion toward someone else in the doorway.
A woman stepped out.
And Josh's pulse kicked up a significant notch.
He adjusted the zoom on the binoculars. Hoping he was wrong. But he wasn't.
Josh instantly recognized that pale blond hair. That face. Even the body that was hidden beneath a bulky pair of green scrubs and a gray windbreaker.
Last time he'd seen Jaycee Finney was the morning of his shooting when she'd been half-naked and skulking out of his bedroom. He hadn't stopped her, that was for sure, because he'd already figured out that a weekend affair with a fellow agent was a bad idea. After the shooting and after he'd realized what she'd done, Josh knew it hadn't been just bad. It had been one of the worst mistakes of his life.
"You know her?" Grayson whispered when he finished his call for backup.
Obviously, something in Josh's body language had clued Grayson in to that possibility. Probably the narrowed eyes or the veins that Josh could feel pulsing on his forehead.
"Yeah. She's Special Agent Jaycee Finney." And if Jaycee was here, that meant the FBI was already aware of something illegal taking place on the ranch.
Josh took out his phone and called his brother, Sawyer, who was an FBI agent in the San Antonio office. "You ready to come back to work, little brother?" Sawyer said the moment he answered.
"Not exactly. Fill me in on SA Jaycee Finney."
Unlike his cheerful greeting, Sawyer didn't jump to answer that, cheerful or otherwise, but Josh heard what sounded like keystrokes on a computer.
"Please tell me you're not involved with her again," Sawyer implored.
"Not like that:"
"Good. Because she's bad news."
Oh, yeah. No arguments from him on that.
Josh had learned his lesson when it came to Jaycee. She would do any- and everything for the badge, and while Josh had once put himself in that same super-troop category, he never would have risked another lawman's life.
As Jaycee had done.
Josh kept his attention fastened to her and watched as the second gunman grabbed her by the arm. She didn't fight back, though he knew she was capable of it. She didn't appear to be armed, either. Jaycee just let the goon practically drag her off the porch and into the yard.
Even though Jaycee and he didn't have a good history together, it still took everything inside him to stay put and not bolt out there to help a fellow law enforcement agent. This was obviously some deep-cover assignment, and playing knight in shining armor could get her killed. Grayson, too.
"Seems like you're not the only one who wanted some downtime," Sawyer finally said. "I just checked the computer, and it says Jaycee's been on a leave of absence for nearly four months now."
That didn't mesh with what was playing out in front of him. Either Jaycee was doing her own rogue private investigation or else she'd been taken captive.
Josh watched as the guard shoved her in the direction of a barn that was almost the same size as the house. "Any ransom demands for her?" he asked Sawyer.
"Ransom? None. Why? What in the Sam Hill is this all about?"
"I'm not sure, but I'll get back to you." Josh pushed the end-call button and slipped his phone back in his jeans pocket.
The guard gave Jaycee another shove just as she reached the barn door. It was impossible to get a decent look at the interior even though there were overhead lights, but it appeared to be some kind of living quarters. The guard shut her inside the barn, slammed the door, engaged the slide lock and walked back to the house.
"Want to let me in on what's happening?" Grayson asked.
"I'm not sure. That agent down there is supposed to be on a leave of absence like me. How long before backup arrives?"
"Twenty minutes at least."
That was an eternity if those men were torturing Jaycee. And that was a strong possibility. The man hadn't exactly handled her with kid gloves when he'd maneuvered her into that barn. It was highly likely that her identity had been blown and that she was being held and forced to give information.
Which she wouldn't give easily.
She wasn't just married to the badge, it was her soul mate. The only thing she actually cared about. She'd die-and get others killed-before giving up anything that would compromise an investigation. Even an unauthorized one.
He knew a lot about that, too, when it came to her.
Josh cursed under his breath. "Cover me. I'll move in for a closer look." And then he remembered that he wasn't talking to a fellow agent but rather his new boss. "I'll stay low and out of sight."
Grayson stared at him, his lips pressed together a moment, but then he nodded. "Call me if you spot trouble."
His phone was already on vibrate, and Josh drew his gun. That simple gesture gave him another jolt of flashbacks, but he wrestled the images aside and made his way back down the hill. It wasn't much of an elevation, but thankfully just enough to keep him hidden.
Grayson had left his truck parked on a ranch trail about a quarter of a mile away. That was no doubt where his brothers would park when they responded to the scene. They were all experienced cops and would know to do a quiet approach, but Josh wanted to finish his surveillance and be back in place with Grayson before they arrived. That way, they could discuss the best way to handle this.
Whatever this was.
He didn't see any guards on the side of the barn that wasn't facing the house, but he stayed low and used the vehicles for cover to make his way from the road and to the barn. No windows, of course. So he went to the back and spotted the door. It wasn't the type that'd normally be on a barn. More like a house door with a padlock on the outside.
But it wasn't locked now and was open just a fraction.
Still no sign of any guards, so Josh went closer and peered inside. It was dimly lit, the only illumination coming from an exposed bulb dangling in the center of the barn and a TV that'd been mounted high on a stall post. An old black-and-white movie flickered on the screen, but the sound was barely audible.
It took Josh a moment to pick through the darkness and shadows and spot Jaycee. She was sitting on an army-style cot, her elbows on her knees, her face buried in her hands.
She wasn't alone.
Josh saw two other women, both also on cots. One was reading a paperback and the other was staring up at the ceiling. What he couldn't tell was if there were any guards inside.
He didn't make a sound or move, but Jaycee's head snapped up, and as if she'd sensed he was there, her gaze zoomed straight toward him. Josh didn't need a lot of light to notice the relief in her eyes.
Quickly followed by something else.
She shook her head, barely moving it, and she looked down, her loose shoulder-length hair sliding forward to conceal the sides of her face. She put her finger to her mouth in a stay-quiet gesture.
At least that was what Josh thought she was trying to do.
"What the hell's going on in there?" a voice boomed through the barn.
Josh glanced around and soon spotted the source. A large speaker mounted on one of the crossbeams. Next to it was a camera.
Had they seen him?
Still no sign of either of the guards, but he got ready just in case he had to grab Jaycee and the others and run for cover.
"Nothing's wrong," Jaycee shouted. She stood, her back to Josh, and she put her hands on her hips. The sleeves of the bulky windbreaker billowed out like wings as she stared up at the camera. "What, I can't scratch my nose now without getting interrogated?"
The tone was the same old Jaycee. Smart mouth. In charge. But Josh could see that her hands were trembling.
"It looked like more than scratching your nose to me," the man on the intercom fired back. "You girls aren't trying to plan something, are you? Like another escape attempt? Because the last one didn't go so good, did it?"
So they were being held against their will. But why? And who was doing this?
"We learned our lesson about that already," Jaycee said, and the two others bobbed their heads in agreement.
The women were at the wrong angle to see Josh, and Jaycee made it even harder for them to spot him by stepping to the side. Positioning herself and that bat-wing windbreaker between the camera and him.
"So do I have permission to scratch my nose?" Jay-cee yelled.
"Yeah. For now anyway. But if you try to break any more cameras, this time your roommates are gonna pay for it."
The moments crawled by, and there was a slight crackling sound. Jaycee's shoulders slumped, and she blew out a barely audible breath.
"I'm getting some air," she said to no one in particular, and she turned and headed toward the back door.
He saw it then. When she turned to the side and the windbreaker shifted. Her belly. Not flat as it'd been the last time they'd crossed paths.
Jaycee was pregnant.
Josh forced himself to stay quiet and calm. And he also forced himself to think about the timing of all of this. It wasn't hard to remember the only time Jaycee and he had slept together. Because that was the same day he'd nearly died.
Five months ago.
Like the flashbacks, that hit him darn hard, like a heavyweight's fist to the gut. But he bit back any sound of surprise because if the guards heard him, it would likely get them killed.
Jaycee didn't look at him. In fact, she gave no indication whatsoever that she knew he was even there. She strolled to the back door, eased it open several inches farther than it already was and took a deep breath-like someone indeed getting a little fresh air.
"Don't move," she mouthed, her chin still lifted slightly in her fresh-air pose. "I broke the lens a couple of days ago with a rock, and they haven't gotten a replacement yet." She tipped her head to the tiny camera mounted on the eaves. "Right now, you're out of camera range for the one inside, and you need to stay that way."
He nodded, didn't move, except to drop his gaze to her stomach. "Whose baby is that?" he asked in a whisper.
She opened her mouth but then closed it just as quickly. Her attention sliced to the front door of the barn, and she whirled around to step in front of him.
Not a second too soon.
The door flew open, and Josh got just a glimpse of the armed goon as he rushed in.
And he pointed his rifle right at Jaycee.